FORMER senior Catholic Ballarat diocese official Cardinal George Pell will today appear before a parliamentary inquiry into child sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
Australia’s head Catholic was the vicar-in-charge of the Catholic education system in the Ballarat diocese from 1973 to 1984 when many south-west children suffered at the hands of priests and brothers.
Dr Pell was heavily criticised for providing moral support to the diocese’s worst serial offender Gerald Ridsdale when he faced paedophile charges in May 1993.
Then an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne, Dr Pell said Ridsdale “had made terrible mistakes” and his decision to accompany the former priest to court “was simply a gesture on my part”.
Both men had lived together at St Alipius presbytery in the early 1970s and Dr Pell is expected to be questioned about his knowledge of Ridsdale’s actions.
Ridsdale was jailed in 1994 after pleading guilty to 46 charges of sexually abusing 21 victims over two decades. He was also found guilty of a further 35 charges of indecent assault against 10 boys in 2006. He is eligible for parole next month.
Many of Ridsdale’s victims were from Mortlake where he was parish priest in the early 1990s. Former students have described how he particularly appealed to children with his Santa Claus-like beard and how he would single out youngsters for confession.
Ballarat bishop Paul Bird told the parliamentary inquiry last month that Ridsdale should have been taken out of ministry by the former bishop Ronald Mulkearns as soon as there was a first report of him committing an offence.
He said the decision to refer Ridsdale for treatment in the hope it would correct his behaviour had “tragic consequences”.
Former bishop Peter Connors, who also fronted the inquiry, said Bishop Mulkearns removed Ridsdale from Inglewood in 1975 and referred him to a psychologist. He was then appointed to Edenhope where there were “horrid offences”.
Bishop Mulkearns agreed to send Ridsdale to Melbourne for a 12-month course before he was made parish priest at Mortlake.
“That was a horrible situation,” Bishop Connors said. “I think every young man in Mortlake was offended against by Ridsdale.
“I have met with so many victims and heard their sad stories that they were in a situation where they knew it was so difficult to tell their parents that they had been victims. There was such a culture of trust that the priest could do no wrong.
“That made it very difficult for young boys particularly to tell their parents, and they were confused in their own sexuality; that Ridsdale would ply them with gifts.
“He was always kind to them, gave them all kinds of opportunities for excursions and gave them all kinds of gifts, but he was always grooming them for the next assault. So they were horribly confused and did not know who to tell.
“How could Mortlake have so many victims without it becoming known to the police at that stage and to the bishop himself? It was only when people like (teacher) Ann Ryan, the principal of the school and a local doctor approached Bishop Mulkearns that they took him out of Mortlake. That is where the greatest number of offences took place.”
Mrs Ryan, of Warrnambool, appeared before the inquiry in February to explain how she waged a frustrating battle with church leaders who wanted to cover up the abuse and were not concerned for the welfare of the victims.
Bishop Mulkearns, who has suffered a stroke, has been excused from giving evidence.
The inquiry committee has held more than 160 hearing sessions and received more than 400 written submissions.